Like swallows to Capistrano, or the geysers in Yellowstone, the predictability of seedless mandarin orange growers and beekeepers banging heads in December is becoming very, very predictable. It was almost exactly a year ago to the day that we first discussed this situation but heres a short recap if you didnt read it then and dont want to read all of that past stuff now.
Beekeepers in California have been placing their beehives in the citrus belt part of the state forever. They stay for three to four weeks making orange blossom honey, building up, getting fat and sassy, enjoying the good life. Citrus growers benefit some from this arrangement with increased yields, but citrus trees tend to be pretty self sufficient with or with out bees, so the growers dont mind much. And the bees and the beekeepers have been pretty happy with this arrangement. There was, as I understand it, some time ago, disagreements over pesticide applications and bees in the groves (citrus plantings are called groves, not orchards for reasons I dont know, but if you do, fill us all in), but they have been resolved and bees pretty much go where they want, when they want.
Thats when a few large growers decided that they needed to produce crops that were more lucrative than just commodity oranges, grapefruit and the like. They wanted to cash in on the high-priced, high-margin seedless mandarin market that at the time was dominated by foreign sources. They already had lots of tangerine trees ... you know, tangerines that are hard to peel, have lots of seeds, that dont sell for nearly as much as the seedless kind. So they planted a boatload of trees that would produce seedless fruit to do just that. But they made a tiny mistake.
Here's how seedless tangerines, or seedless mandarins as they are commonly referred to, work: Seedless mandarin fruit develops just fine without any kind of pollination that is without transferring pollen from the anther of the same flower, or a different flower to the stigma of a receptive blossom. Even without pollination a flower produces that familiar sweet, juicy, easy-to-peel without seeds delicacy we all know, enjoy and pay handsomely for. Moreover, the pollen from flowers from the same tree, or a different tree of the same cultivar does not work ... they are self incompatible and cant pollinate a receptive blossom on their own tree. So even if there is pollen transfer, no seeds develop.
So growing seedless mandarins should be easy, right? No compatible pollen, no seeds. Life should have been good. You just know theres a BUT here, dont you ... and youre right.
Heres the catch, and that tiny mistake I mentioned. Pollen from some citrus varieties works just fine on seedless mandarin flowers, and when compatible pollen and a receptive stigma make beautiful music together parenthood happens and you have seeds. You no longer have expensive seedless mandarins because what you have is inexpensive, seedy tangerines. The growers didnt read the planting guide on these trees as carefully as perhaps they should have, and they planted their to-be-seedless varieties right next to blocks and blocks of eager, compatible-pollen producing orange trees. You can guess what happened.
But wait! Dont forget about all those bees out there now ... those tiny pollen bearers. Those bees that were out there first, that have Californias Right To Farm handbook in their back pockets. Its those bees that are doing all that pollen transferring. And its those bees that the seedless mandarin growers want gone ... out of there ... away ... scrammed ... vamoosed ... shooed ...
Last year they declared war on the bees, well, on the beekeepers actually, and were ready to file lawsuits to keep beehives more than two miles away from their virgin trees in an effort to keep bees away. Some beekeepers moved to other places, but there arent enough places to put all those beehives that are more than two miles away from somebodys block of seedless-to-be mandarin trees. Some beekeepers just sat, and some, some got pretty steamed. But the growers have money, lawyers and more money. But they also have almonds, along with these now-seedy tangerines, and if you rile a beekeeper in December who is going to pollinate your almonds in February ... well, maybe thats not such a good idea either ... but something had to give, and it wasnt going to be the trees or the bees. It was gonna be a range war ... remember ... cattle, fences, water rights ... bees, trees, pollen rights ...
Cooler heads prevailed however, and the growers and beekeepers formed a working group to work out the problem. In the meantime, some of the growers figured out that one way to stop this was to actually cover their trees, or at least the outside rows of trees in their blocks with netting to keep the bees out. That was an expensive option and not all growers tried it because there went the financial advantage of growing those seedless trees. We had a photo of one of those netted groves on the cover of our magazine ... it was a very popular cover with California beekeepers.
Well, that was a year ago now, and since then not much work has been done ... or rather, with all the work that was done, not much was accomplished. The growers still want the bees gone, or at least most of the bees gone. And at the working group meeting just held they proposed a beehive density of a hive per acre within that two mile radius of their wanting-to-be-seedless mandarin groves. Not counting the grove acres (of which there are considerable), a two-mile radius encompasses 8,038 acres, or 12.5 square miles. That would allow 8,000 hives in a 12 square mile area. (Figure one big-, or two medium-sized beekeeping outfits.)
That is, one colony per acre if these groves are surrounded by other crops that would act as interference. If theres nothing but open ground surrounding these groves they want only a half a colony per acre stretching out for five miles in all directions. A five-mile radius is just over 50,000 acres, or, are you ready ... 79 square miles to hold a mere 25,000 colonies. I know a dozen beekeepers that run that many bees in their sleep. Consider there are hundreds of these groves that dont want bees, and suddenly theres hardly any bees anywhere near any seedless-to-be mandarin trees, or any other trees for that matter. When almonds are pollinated, there would be 100,000 or more colonies in that same area. Where do you suppose a lot of those 100,000 colonies were before the almonds bloomed?
The working group broke up without a resolution, so the next step is the California Department of Food and Ag will make a proposal by February. Then theres a public comment period for 45 days, then a public hearing where the comments are addressed, then through legal, and then, maybe, a regulation. So the growers are going to have to figure out something again this year, like nets, or maybe scarecrows, and the beekeepers will get another orange blossom honey crop, and the almonds will get pollinated, but the mandarins might too.
So this winter, if you buy some U.S.-grown seedless mandarins and you get a seed or two in one of them, think of that beekeeper just trying to make a buck. And think of that grower, who should have read the planting guide.
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